The 1997 Baltimore Orioles were champions of the AL Eastern Division. They were a very good team that year. They were also an old team. For the next few years they tried to hold onto the magic by signing additional veteran players: Albert Belle, Joe Carter, Charles Johnson. It did not work out as the team’s veteran nucleus steadily declined. Finally in July, 2000, the O’s gave up and unloaded much of its veteran presence in a “fire sale.”
At this point the Orioles entered the period that has been referred to by Birds fans as the “Dark Ages.” Substandard “prospects” from a decimated farm system supplemented a roster of mediocre veterans as the Orioles endured one losing season after another. With the exception of one flurry of signings before the 2004 season, it was like they weren’t even trying. About the only consolation was that Tampa Bay was so bad, at least the Birds couldn’t fall into last place.
Then as the decade neared its close, Tampa Bay started winning and the O’s hit rock bottom. By the time Buck Showalter took over in July of 2010 they had endured thirteen consecutive losing seasons.
That was what made that mid-September game in 2012 against Tampa Bay so important. The Orioles were in a battle for as playoff spot. It was the first time since 1997 that they were having September games that meant anything. And Tampa was one of the teams they would have to defeats to make the playoffs.
It was one of those rare mid-week day games that I wish the Birds would schedule more of. Good thing it was a day game, because the contest went fourteen innings and over five hours. They even gave us a second “seventh inning stretch” in the middle of the fourteenth.
In many ways the game was vintage Joe Maddon as the Rays used no fewer than twenty-six players (nine pitchers). Things got so complex that in the top of the 11th inning with two out, batter Ryan Roberts injured himself while batting. There were two strikes on him at the time so Maddon had pitcher Chris Archer “pinch hit” for Roberts. Archer was scheduled to pitch the bottom of the 11th so the manager decided to have him get his “at bat” in the top of the 11th inning so that new second baseman could take the previous pitcher’s spot in the order. Now you ask, why are we worrying about pitchers batting? This is the AL with the DH and all. Yes, but a couple of innings earlier Maddon had shifted his starting DH to play the field, thereby negating the DH rule for that game. Hence the pitcher had to bat. Are you following all that? If not, don’t worry. Just realize that when you keep score in a Joe Maddon game, it’s best to write very small.
Chris Archer pitched the next three plus innings and was, I thought, rather impressive. This was his first season (actually just a fraction of a season – six games). In subsequent years he would go on to become the ace of the Tampa Bay pitching staff.
Anyway in the bottom of the 13th, it appeared that the O’s had struck pay dirt. A walk, an error, and single loaded the bases with no (as in zero) outs. At that point Maddon replaced the left fielder with another shortstop. So the Rays now have five infielders and only two players in the outfield. Like I said, you need to write small. And it worked! A force out at home. A strike out. Back to three outfielders. And a final strike out sent the game into inning fourteen.
Of course, I was rooting for the Birds but I could not help but admire all that artistry on the part of Joe Maddon. The good news for the Birds came in bottom of the 14th. With two out, a walk, followed by two singles gave Orioles a run and the victory. It was the type of game that teams heading to the playoffs win. September baseball was fun again in Baltimore.